A short story by Adele Cabot
(copyrighted 2018. About 3400 words)
It was as if there were just a thin silk bed sheet between Bubbles and her dream. She pulled the sheet off her too-warm body, her dream still fresh – missiles sailing through space – long and lethal, nuclear-bearing warheads, lightly sailing gravity-free through blue space right towards her.
“Forget it,” Bubbles told herself rolling over to take the tiniest sip of water from the glass at her bedside. “Shit. Now I’ll have to remember to forget that dream too,” she told herself.
Work next. The morning light came in through the over-sized city windows. She forced her extra-long, spider-like legs out from between the silk sheets. Pulling the curtain back she saw the sun just beginning to light up the back of the jagged buildings of Downtown LA in the distance. Angelinos, if given a multiple-choice question would probably say that LA’s sun was the greatest power in the city, although many people in Bubble’s neighborhood would dispute that. She felt a mini adrenaline surge as she looked at her view from her Hollywood Hills home all the way to Downtown. She’d worked hard to afford it. And it was all hers, mortgage paid off years ago. She watched last night’s street lights go out as if they were being eaten up one by one by the power-hungry sun as its rays stretched up through the city.
Those perfect legs, her money-makers, carried her to the kitchen on the other side of her oblong studio-house. All the rooms were contained in one extended, high-ceilinged room – living room, kitchen, a dining area that was bigger than a dinette but smaller than a whole room, bathroom, and bedroom with ginormous, exquisitely-detailed walk-in closet. There were no walls or doors except for the bathroom door. Vast windows filled one whole side – the LA view to die for. The back of the studio-house was buried into the side of the cliff so about half of her house was suspended in midair. Bubbles had achieved a good deal of the Hollywood dream. And she lived in her house alone.
She clicked on her phone and looked at it while ducking down behind her kitchen counter to flip on the coffee. She opened the fridge and saw that gluten-free muffin.
“Maybe a little bite – just a little one,” she reached her hand into the cool of the top shelf, but something stopped her, she froze.
“Photo shoot today, Bubbles,” she said to her frozen hand suspended in space. Then, “But we can be a little bigger now, a little rounder,” she thought as her hand moved closer to the gluten-free treasure teasing her finger tips. She grabbed it and placed it on the counter while turning towards her bathroom.
“Later, I’ll eat it later.”
Her shower produced more thoughts from her remember-to-forget list as the warm water fell on her perfectly buffed skin.
She sat at the kitchen counter, the time left to departure was running out. A text swooshed in. It was Georgina, her Manager.
“Jst bout time. U know where yr going?”
She texted the thumbs up back.
“Theyre not sending a car.”
“Got it,” Bubbles responded getting up and heading toward the large full-length mirror by the front door. She saw her body with the reflected view of LA behind her in the mirror – usually she loved how that looked – like she was a part of the architecture of Los Angeles. But today she couldn’t find any love.
She looked at her face – without fixing it. The sides of her mouth turned down and a slight worry wrinkle was beginning to grow between her eyes. Then she changed it – forming her face into a lively, happy smile. She practiced a carefree face and a what-the-hell laughing face knowing that they all wanted that face ever since it had adorned two giant billboards, one over Sunset and the other over Century Blvd. We Are So Happy These Days, the photograph of Bubbles told the world as they looked at her picture. Teenage girls imitated her face, her leggy pose. They would be happy, carefree, yes, even laughing American girls and women. A dull ache ran up the back of Bubble’s neck and she released her facial muscles – returning them to nothing special.
Reaching for the gluten-free muffin, she allowed herself a medium-sized bite then poured more coffee down her dry throat, grabbed her floppy bag, and exited her house.
The fuss they made over her was nowhere near what it had been in the heady time of the magazine covers and the billboards when her face and legs were everywhere. Now she was just a model with freakishly long legs, but that was a thought she had forgotten to have about herself. Her photographer came to say hello while others checked the light and fiddled with her make-up and clothing. She heard the crew discussing the latest superstorms, the string of Category 5 hurricanes in the Caribbean. She felt that wrinkle line appearing between her eyes.
“Forget..,” she mantra-ed turning away from the disaster talk, and the line between her brows smoothed.
“We really want to go happy with this one, Doll,” an older executive instructed her. “We’re selling the good life. The one everyone wants, lots of money, the best friends ever, and total freedom,” he said winking at her.
“Yeah that’s what it is,” a woman executive from the agency said approaching them, “Total freedom. Love it!”
“Right?” He said.
“Total Freedom. I like it,” they agreed as they ogled her righteously.
Bubbles knew the total freedom look. She’d made a fortune on it.
“If it’s good,” another man said in a loud voice, “They’ll buy it in China.” And the execs in their suits and heals laughed.
“Freedom is so sexy in China!” They laughed.
“Just like you, baby,” the first exec said pulling Bubbles next to him and giving her a squeeze.
Then suddenly all the phones of all the people on set made the alert sound at the same moment. They froze – what’s happening? Then all speedily reached for their cell phones, except Bubbles who couldn’t have her phone near her on set.
“Oh – Amber Alert,” the head guy said.
“Not here. In Orange County.”
“What?” an older gaffer asked.
“Amber Alert in Orange County,” they told him.
He looked at them uncomprehendingly.
“Alright – let’s start,” the head guy said.
On the way home from the shoot, the wheel of Bubble’s car mysteriously and unexpectedly turned into Rocket Burger. It was one of the last 1950’s space-age style burger joints in Hollywood that hadn’t been bought out yet by Panda Express. Rocket Burger offered large, juicy burgers with jumbo bun and just enough mayo sauce and crunchy pickles and lettuce to create a good stream of juice which now ran down Bubble’s chin as she ate it.
Bubble’s real name was Barbella and she hated it and never forgave her parents for naming her that. Her father, Earl, had been a pioneering health club aerobics instructor and body builder in the 1970’s in L.A. He had come up with the name Barbella and was very proud of his own originality. When he bragged about it to their friends, her mother Janet would always quip under her breath, ”Yeah I wonder where he got that idea from…” and Bubbles would tuck her long legs up underneath her and squirm with embarrassment.
Her mother and sister called her Barbara for a while, but it seemed wrong. It was her younger sister, Mattie (another of Dad’s gym-inspired names) who nick-named her sister Bubbles. And like most childhood nicknames, it captured something of Bubble’s soul. Whenever Mattie told the story of how she came up with the name, like Earl, she too was very proud of herself for accurately naming her older sister. She had thought of it when as young girls, Barbella and Mattie had been thrown into the bubble bath together and Barbella had laughed so much she made the bubbles multiply.
“And the bubbles never seemed to burst!” Mattie would say as she giggled through the story. There was a part of Bubbles that enjoyed being the center of the story. She was after all known to be a carefree girl, at least on camera. But part of her didn’t like the nickname much more than her real name. When she was forced to endure her sister’s telling of the story, she still twisted herself into a pretzel, one that had gotten tighter with age.
Bubbles indelicately wiped the juice from her Rocket Burger from her chin and took a long draw on her diet coke. She turned to look at something hovering over her to the left in a black cloud kind of way. It was a rather large man in a black T-shirt that stretched tightly across his middle-aged belly. He had shaved his head bald and Bubbles could see the five o’clock shadow coming in around the sides of his head. He was looking directly at Bubbles and smiling. She knew him but couldn’t quite put him in context.
“Hey Bubbles,” he said. “Wow it’s been a while. You look amazing.”
She looked at him while wiping more burger juice off her face and nodded in acknowledgement that she did know him but was unclear how.
Ignoring the obvious “unclear” part, the man said again, “Wow,” and then after a slight pause, “Did you ever call that guy?”
After a stunned moment, she replied in her trademark happy and carefree tone, “What guy?” The dots of ketchup in the corners of her mouth added an interesting note to the illusion of carefree.
“You know, that photography teacher I told you about.”
A flicker of recognition crossed her face.
“Ohhh,” she said with full implication of how important that had been to her, when in fact it had not been. “Yeah, yeah. – No, no. I think I lost his number,” she said with a silly me look and a casual flip of her hair.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the man said, “Well, he’s a great teacher, you know. And I remember us talking on a break from the Pellegrino Limonato spot…”
“Oh!” she let slip now remembering that he was a lighting guy whom she’d worked with on at least two shoots, maybe more.
“Yeah – fun shoot, right?” he said straddling the line between sarcastic and fake positive. “Well you looked awesome, amazing as usual.” He beamed and sat down at her table.
“Ohhh,” she said again feeling cramped but reflecting his fake positive. The “all-good” overtone of her voice worked hard to suppress the “get away from me, you creep” undertones.
“You said you thought you might like to transition into photography when you…you know…when it’s…time.” Then he paused. “So maybe that would be soon, huh?”
She took another bite.
“I mean, our first shoot together was…” and he looked up as if counting the years. Then he looked at her – the smile ran out of his face as he realized how long it had been. “Well, no need to think about that.”
He had genuinely embarrassed himself, Bubbles realized. All she had done was listen to him and now he was embarrassed, and it was up to her to make everything positive again.
“No, no,” she said shaking her head and extending a greasy palm in his direction. “All-good,” she said.
Hearing the code words, the photographer was visibly relieved. “OK, well here’s his number again if you want it. I mean this guy is good. The real deal.”
He shared the contact with her from his phone. She was going to ask how he had gotten her number but deciding that would be rude, she said nothing.
“Ok,” he said getting up. “I gotta run. I’m so busy now, lots of work,” he said. “I’ve gotta meet my girlfriend. Great seeing you, Bubs.”
He looked at her for a moment then covering his struggle to stand, he waved and left Rocket Burger. She watched him go.
When she left, there was something not quite right in Bubble’s gut – and it wasn’t just the hamburger, it was the guy who’d crashed her lunch. She started to feel a familiar feeling of cynicism begin to creep in. She’d been trying to forget it for a while now – but this guy had ignited it in her again. The way he’d unconsciously looked at her – his half-closed eyes getting that horny look as if he wanted to turn her around and smack her ass. And her guts did another flip as she got into her Tesla to head back to her Hollywood Hills tree-top home.
Part of her was glad that she could still work and that offers kept coming in – but she knew that party would soon be over. And then what? Become a Photographer? She wasn’t 18 anymore or 28 or even 38. Those catalogs with clothing for older women kept calling for now but she could see the iron curtain in front of her. The iron curtain, as her agent called it, the heavy impenetrable divider between youth and age, between working model and aged out, or as those comediennes called it – the elusive line between fuckable and un-fuckable. She shook her head.
Bubbles was no stranger to the treacheries of the world of models – and the men who seemed to own them or acted like they owned them. She remembered when she moved into her first apartment in L.A. stupidly going to a call somewhere out in the Valley. When she got there, it turned out to be the guy’s house – or as he called it, his home office. He offered her scotch and then called to someone from another room to bring it in. Bubbles remembered the woman who’d brought it. She was about 30 and she was giggling from the moment she entered the room. She couldn’t look at Bubbles as she put the drink down and she had giggled all the way out.
Bubbles flushed red when that memory came back to her. She couldn’t forget that one, it was glued into her brain. And then she recalled herself taking off her clothes at the man’s behest and parading around the room. She was 20. The man hadn’t touched her he’d just looked at her, watched her walk. She didn’t look at him much, but she pretended to be having a good time. Recalling it, Bubble’s eyes slammed closed as she tried to turn those mental pictures off. She didn’t get that job – which in a way was worse, the more vulnerable you are, the worse the rejection feels. She guessed her body wasn’t good enough. She’d even hugged him as he walked her out to her car – that moment haunted her and had never made it off her remember-to-forget list. Why would she do that? She guessed it was because that’s the thing you do when you share something intimate with someone. Or maybe she was trying to make it right by acting as if it had been a date. It was confusing. She’d felt awful and slightly sick as she drove away. She was feeling something she’d never felt before, violated maybe, she thought in retrospect. At the time, she’d told herself if she had gotten the job maybe that would make what had just happened ok. But now she wasn’t so sure. For a while afterwards, she pretended it had never happened. When she had gotten back to her then-apartment in East Hollywood that she shared with a few other young hopeful models and actors, she didn’t say a word to them. Too embarrassing. They would think she was stupid.
As she drove to Hollywood Hills, she remembered thinking at the time that it was just the ways things were. And that wasn’t the only time that kind of thing happened to her. Sometimes the men had tried to touch her and force her. Maybe she should go to one of those groups that were forming now. She’d gotten an email about one from her union. But men had always treated her like that to varying degrees, even when she was a young girl. Maybe that’s what had made her such a good model, she thought. She had learned to be looked at that way and had made a living off of it for 25 years. She flipped her hair.
But now what? The iron curtain loomed. She couldn’t stand any of the men she’d dated long enough to get serious or married. All her friends were in the Biz – but it seemed like they were just people going through this experience with her, not like the friends she’d had growing up or in college. Her manager texted her more than anyone else did anyway. The world was topsy-turvy.
She decided to pull over at the high-end make-up store near the 101 before going home. Buying a few things would cheer her up. And they always treated her like the super-model people used to say she was. Parking spaces were scant. She had to park on the other side of the freeway overpass.
Walking under the 101 freeway, she looked askance at the enormous concrete beams that held the bridge up. On the road above the jammed cars were crawling, and she walked quickly always fearing an earthquake would strike as she walked underneath it, crushing her with a zillion tons of concrete and metal as the cars crashed down. The sidewalk was filthy – trash and the smell of urine and worse. She approached a small tent encampment, an impromptu homeless neighborhood under the overpass. Some of the people there had ratty sleeping bags lined up, others had tents with flaps. She slowed. There was a man passed out cold on the sidewalk. She wasn’t sure if he was dead but as her high heels clicked by him, his eyes shot open and he turned his head to look at her. His eyes had the kind of darkness she could feel down to her feet. She moved faster. He held out his hand. She considered the wisdom of taking the time to stop, open her floppy bag, take out her wallet with all her credit cards, pull out some cash, if she even had any, and hand it to him.
Then she remembered she’d used cash to pay for her Rocket Burger and put the change in her back pocket. She hesitated but the darkness in his eyes turned lighter as perhaps the possibility of food inspired some life in him. He struggled to get up on one arm, moving toward her slightly as he did. She found the change in her jeans and as she slowly moved her hand to offer it to him, she looked at his hand and arm. His tanned white skin was dotted red with the dried blood of countless anonymous cuts. There were greasy black patches all over him as if the grime of life had permanently stained his skin. His smell was nauseating. Her heart was beating – she put the money in his hand and just as she did, he closed his fingers around her perfectly manicured soft white skin. They paused holding hands under the freeway. She held her breath lost in the patterns the grime made on his cheeks. The homeless man looked at their hands together and his face grimaced. Then he slowly withdrew his hand taking the money from her. He looked at her. His eyes first dark, now brightened at the thought of buying something, and then they opened wide like a child’s. In his eyes she could see a hint of innocence in a jungle of his contempt. She took her hand back. It felt sticky and dirty, but she didn’t wipe it off, not yet, weirdly, she didn’t want to offend the man. She walked quickly again, past the other inhabitants of the underpass who stared and babbled at her as she passed. She struggled to remain the happy, totally free girl from the billboard until she came out on the other side of the underpass. She now felt her own feelings becoming jungle-like. She tried to shape them into carefree again. And after a moment she wasn’t sure who she was.
She paused at the door to the high-end make-up store she’d been to countless times. She looked at her hand and wiping it on her jeans, she decided not to go into the store after all – not today, she wouldn’t buy make-up. Instead, she kept walking down the street realizing she’d never seen what was beyond the make-up store before.